Bangkok Phil

The folly of travel and doing cities by numbers

I don't know why we do it but we do


There was an uneasy silence. My wife and I just looked at each other. Two people that were about to do something that felt so wrong yet so right at the same time.

Cobblers to The Louvre

There we were standing in Rue Mouffetard, in the centre of Paris, and we felt like we had made one of the craziest decisions in our lives. We had decided not to go and see The Louvre Museum. It felt ridiculous. It felt liberating. Everybody who comes to Paris has to go and see The Louvre. It's just the way it is. But not us.

An article on the internet had started to change the way I viewed overseas travel - especially to major European cities. Titled ‘Why do cities by the numbers?', the basic message was ‘why traipse around museums if you're not a museum person?' I couldn't agree more. It just took me far too long to realize it.

We had dutifully walked around The Prado Museum in Madrid two years before - simply because everyone else did. All the guide-books say that if you haven't done The Prado, then you haven't been to Madrid. The building houses one of the finest collections of art in the world.

But after twenty minutes, the museum feels hot and stuffy. I keep getting in the way of other tourist's photographs - and I've seen one sixteenth century flabby arse and one bow and arrow-toting cherub too many. I begin looking at emergency exit signs and half wish a fire would suddenly break out.

A sense of foreboding

I knew deep down that The Louvre in Paris would be a similar experience. Yes, I really wanted to see The Mona Lisa and that statue with no arms, but did I want to queue around the block for a couple of hours to get in and then end up viewing the most famous painting in the world from a distance that made it look smaller than the average tea-towel. The answer was no.

Paris is of course the classic ‘city by numbers'. From the moment you check in to your hotel, or in our case, Marie-Francoise's place on Rue Buffon, it's a stressful race against time to tick off all those ‘must-sees' - Notre Dame, The Eiffel Tower, The Pantheon, The Arc de Triomphe, The Champs Elysees and The Sacre Couer at Montmartre. And you can't do The Sacre Couer without stopping off at the famous air vent in front of The Moulin Rouge and trying to recreate that famous Marilyn Monroe pose (always difficult when you're wearing jeans)

Having too many things to see makes it feel instantly like you've lost control of your holiday. Vacation spirits start to flag and it becomes impossible to do things at a pace that's anything less than hectic.

The days are planned and mapped out for you whether you like it or not. It's just a case of finding out how to get to each attraction and deciding the best order in which to see them in.

Let down again

And a city's ‘must-sees' are all too often a huge disappointment.

Topping the list of great big fat let-downs, I would have to insert Anne Frank's House in Amsterdam. Now I might not be a museum person but the Anne Frank House is something I had wanted to see for years. Even though I've never kept a diary myself, the story of a whole family hiding from the Nazis in a secret room behind a book-case, had always intrigued me. And so it became the first of Amsterdam's attractions to tick off on the must-see checklist.

A quick look at the comments on Trip Advisor then before heading off.

"Buy your tickets in advance"
"Don't go during school holidays"
"Be prepared to queue twice around the block"
"Get there early just as the sun comes up"

I've already gone off the idea completely. Why don't we just amble around the Red Light District and sit in one of Amsterdam's brilliant coffee shops, order a drink and one of those funny cigarettes and just watch the world go by?

But queue for Anne Frank's House we did. You like to think you're going to see history coming alive and the house preserved just as how the Nazis left it but to trek around the rooms becomes a dispiriting experience of endless signage that screams ‘No photos', ‘No eating and drinking' and ‘No entry'. And every exhibit, every grainy black and white photograph and every article of clothing is displayed behind perspex screens covered in tiny scratches and glass show-cases that could frankly do with a good clean.

That's the way to do it

Prague in the Czech Republic is another example of a city that you feel compelled to do by the numbers. You can stand on the banks of the River Elbe and watch a whole tourist population shuffle down to the St Charles Bridge and then shuffle back up to the castle and so on and so forth. Everyone's swept along by some sort of invisible force.

After a quick trip to the over-rated and hugely underwhelming Prague Castle, I said to my wife "enough!" - grabbed her by the hand, jumped aboard the first tram heading towards the outskirts of town and we wandered around for hours in a Prague neighborhood where tourists fear to tread.

We ended up in a dingy, back-street Czech restaurant where we couldn't understand a word of the menu but the owners greeted us like long lost family and we had a six-course feast for pocket change. Now that's the way to do a city!

One place on my bucket list that I'd still like to visit one day is Cairo in Egypt. And you know those great big triangular-shaped constructions located on the outskirts of the city? Well, I might go and see them. And then again, I might not.




Comments

A great article! My Thai wife and I came to the same conclusion last year when we visited London. We go back every year to visit family but we'd never been to London before and we thought it was high time to finally go and "be a tourist" in my country's capital city.

So, we bought two pricy open-top bus tickets because everyone else was.

We bought the river cruise add-on because it seemed cool.

We got off at the stop near Buckingham Palace because so many other people did.

Our moment of realisation finally came as we were in the queue for the Thames riverboat cruise: What were we doing? Who were we queuing with? We looked like we were part of one of those hopeful-looking Scandinavian tour groups you see in Bangkok, trying to stay positive because surely there'll be something enjoyable to do at some point?

Right?

By Matt, Bangkok (27th January 2015)

"If your first trip to Paris doesn't include the Eiffel Tower, then there's something wrong with you"

Do you mean see it or actually go up it? You can see The Eiffel Tower from many places around the city.

We did actually stand under it and it was magnificent but again, I wasn't keen on queuing for two hours just to get a view of Paris that you can get from Montmartre for free.

By Bangkok Phil, Samut Prakarn (22nd January 2015)

It's a bit unfortunate that some travelers feel compelled to write disparaging articles about paths well worn by tourists. For most people, the travels to exotic places DO include the places that made them famous in the first place.

If you didn't feel it was worth waiting in line for the Louvre, then fine. You've missed out on something special. But like you say - there was a long line, so why bother! If your first trip to Paris doesn't include the Eiffel Tower, then there's something wrong with you.

What's more unfortunate, is the belief that some of these writers have, that they alone have discovered some pristine beach or village market or 'natives only' restaurant that no other foreigner has been to before.

'Off the beaten track' means just that. It doesn't mean absolutely exclusive to the brave one who has foregone the highlights of the city and hopped on a bus to anywhere hoping for the best!

Not that there is anything wrong with hopping on a bus and hoping for the best. I've done that myself in faraway places such as Nicaragua and it's been fantastic.

I think that if you are a regular traveler, it's important to get the famous places out of the way first. On my very first trip to Texas back in the mid 80s, the very first thing I did was make a beeline for Southfork Ranch... Actually, it was a bit of a let down, but I felt that I had to see it. After that I spent more time hunting down the eclectic scene on lower Greenville Avenue. Not as famous as Southfork for a tourist but still lots to do and see.

But travelling is different things for different folks. I think age has something to do with it, too. I was dangerously more adventurous in my 20s. It's amazing how I'm still alive. But now in my 50s I'm more at home sitting on a bamboo chair in Raffles, sipping a Singapore Sling (extremely expensive, by the way!) than I would be sat on a hotel roof in Guatamala mistaking the sound of an earthquake for a big lorry! (Very scary!)

The references to Eastern Europe made me smile. Yugoslavia (on the right of Italy!) was a beautiful country to hitch hike around back in the late 70s. Since the fall of the wall and the USSR, that whole region of Europe has been sacrificed to tourist cash and subsequently lost a lot of it's original appeal.

But whatever your reasons for travelling and however you spend your time and money in any one place, the days of being truly 'adventurous' are all but over. 'Globalization' has made the world smaller and more accessible to everyone... and just a bit duller... but maybe that's just me!

By Mark Newman, Thailand (22nd January 2015)

Really enjoyed the article.

Brings to mind my visit to the Statue of Liberty crown. You must have advance reservations. And about the, "reservation." The reservation time is the ferry boat departure time from Manhattan - get off the ferry at the island where the statue is, and hello 1 hour queue (including security frisk and much in the way of barking instructions) before entering the statue. Pay extra money to store your items in a locker, as they allow you to take nothing but a camera into the statue (not even water). Then climb almost 400 steps (30 minutes) each way - with views of nothing the but the arse of the person in front of you 90% of the time along the way (if with your woman, make her go first, unless of course she's gassy). At the top you get maybe 2 minutes to look out the crown (the line has to keep moving) through unclean windows.

Plus to make it even better, the ventilation is mediocre (its an old statue, there is only so much they can do). I was there on a partly cloudy spring day, so the temp wasn't too bad, but in summer the statue is apparently sauna-like. The green lady was a gift from France, so maybe its fitting that part of my memory is the body odor festival I experienced.

By UrbanMan, near an aircon (20th January 2015)

Fair comments on the standard things to do in city's. Nowadays there are so many tourists everywhere. I do feel you get a bit more value if you do things on your own and not on some organized tour.

As far as the pyramids go, those really are a must see :)

By Bart, The Netherlands (20th January 2015)

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